Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Movie vs. Book: Demon Seed

It looks like Bill took pity on me after the last movie/book review. This time around we took a look at “Demon Seed”. I have to preface this by saying I’ve seen the movie before and am a fan of the director, Donald Cammell. Yes, there are some major flaws to the movie, but as a whole, I dug it.
The premise is quite different than the book. In the movie version of Demon Seed, Susan Harris (played by Julie Christie) has just separated from her husband. Said husband was a computer genius who fully automated their home, hooking everything up to a computer named “Arthur”. This same fellow is busy working on the ultimate artificial intelligence computer—Proteus. He gets the computer angry by not allowing it “out of its box”. Proteus seeks revenge, and fulfillment of his desires, by taking over the Harris’ household computer and impregnating Susan. That way, if he can’t go outside “and feel the sun on [his] face”, his child will be able to.
I admit there are a ton of plot and logic holes there. There’s even more if you look at the little details and subplots in the movie. The only advice I can give is just ‘go with it’. More than creating a solid storyline, this little flick goes for the gut and exploits many standard fears. The big thing Demon Seed focuses on is the fear of technology. Even in today’s household, we have computerized products that, while we know how to operate them, we have no idea what goes on inside the wiring. Beneath the on/off switch, the average person doesn’t understand how the microwave oven makes their popcorn cook. That absence of knowledge leaves all sorts of possibilities open…and not all of them positive.

Another fear it exploits is directed mostly at women—the fear we are nothing more than our bodies. Proteus doesn’t care if she’s a kind woman, if she is intelligent or even borderline coherent. He needs her body to create a child for him. That is all. There is no reasoning she can do to escape Proteus, no bargaining. After all, her body still exists and that’s all he wants. Combine that with the reactions of her soon-to-be-ex husband, and you’re left with a woman who is almost ignored by the world for everything other than what her body can do.
Simply acknowledging and exploiting these fears is not what makes this movie work. While there are a number of side characters, most of the movie relies on the performances of Christie and Robert Vaughn as the voice of Proteus. Even though the fears are realistic, the premise is beyond absurd, yet Christie gives such a dedicated performance she makes even the most outlandish events believable. Vaughn deserves a huge chunk of respect. He’s playing a computer. Granted, an intelligent computer, but a machine nonetheless. And it’s not even a personified computer, just various screens and lenses, maybe an occasional psychedelic animation. Vaughn only had his voice as a tool to make us fear Proteus, pity it, or get incensed at. He managed to pull it off wonderfully. It’s a damn shame that he wasn’t listed in the movie’s credits because, without him, Demon Seed could have easily failed.
There are a number of reasons why the movie should have failed, and may for many viewers. The dialogue (written by Robert Jaffe, screenwriter for Motel Hell) all too often slips into self-importance. We are graced with such deep, meaningful utterances like “I can listen in to the galactic dialogue” and “My intelligence alive in human flesh, touching the universe, feeling it.” While I’m guessing these lines are meant to show how enlightened the computer has become, they make him sound like a high-school poet.
Also, those extended animation sequences mentioned above, are beautiful but used all too often and for way too long. Once sequence in particular lasted for near five full minutes of undulating shapes and wavy lines. Used minimally, those bits could have been effective. Instead, they felt like time filler.
Another downfall is, unfortunately, where a lot of technology-based flicks fail. Sure, a huge supercomputer with really fancy screens may have seemed high tech at the time; by today’s standards they’re as exciting as 8 track players. As dated as the tech was, I have to admit they did one impressive bit. The computer created this extension of itself that resembles the old Rubik’s Snake, a long string of triangles you can twist into various shapes and forms. That’s the best comparison I can make for the giant gold appendage. Remember, this is 1977, before CGI. I’m not sure how they made this thing, but it was damned impressive.
Director Donald Cammell only made four movies during his 25 year career, Demon Seed being his second. He started out as a painter, and that shows not just in Demon Seed, but in his other movies as well. The words, the people aren’t the most important pieces of his flicks. Instead, he uses the visual aspect of the media. You don’t so much sit down to watch a Cammell movie as you do look at it and feel them. Looking at Demon Seed that way, you might see something effective. Even if you don’t, you still have a cool evil computer movie with some rather interesting stuff. Either way, I do recommend Demon Seed. Just don’t watch it on your computer. That would just be way too creepy.


Demon Seed is a rarity among Dean Koontz novels. It is one of his early science fiction novels, most of which he has refused to allow back into print. This one, however, was re-released, albeit only with significant rewriting and polishing. The original version had two printings in the US; the first had a green cover and the second, a few years later, had a movie tie-in cover.
That’s the version I read. After all, that’s the version on which the movie is based. Or so the movie credits said.
The original book is flawed. The opening chapters introduce the scenario in a ham-fisted way and the main character’s emotional troubles are cured too quickly after she is forced to confront the ghosts of her past. That said, the book isn’t really about a woman being impregnated by a computer. It’s about a person’s fight against domination, and as soon as the plot clears the initial hurdles of the setup, the story runs smoothly.
The most questionable aspect of the book, the computer’s failure to account for the potential actions which Susan takes toward the climax, is handled adeptly. The failures are intertwined with Proteus (the computer) encountering a schism between his logical functions and his newly developing emotional ones.
Proteus starts out as a supercomputer and becomes an adolescent, and possibly a sociopath. Lacking any structure or guidance, it becomes convinced that its desires are shared by all, and it becomes agitated when what it perceives as rational is challenged. It develops a fixation on Susan, who was originally chosen merely due to factors such are proximity, gender and relative isolation.
In a nod to pseudoscience of the 1970s, subliminal commands are used to utterly control Susan. The widely held belief was that reiterations of concepts or commands at the fringes of audible or visual reception, so quickly that they couldn’t be discerned by the conscious mind but would be perceived by the subconscious, could influence behavior. That construct is used to make Susan drop things, move places, answer questions, participate in sexual acts and even forget she had been controlled. These scenes bolster the impression the reader gets of Proteus’ control; even when he says she has freedom, she does not. She recognizes this at a fundamental level, and upon being cured of her mental illness, seeks to escape.
The book is a science fiction thriller with significant horror elements. It is not a perfect book. It is, however, a very enjoyable book if you are willing and able to overlook the obvious flaws.

Three stars out of five.
--Bill Lindblad